It’s not often that a World Cup winner graces the grounds of non-League football here in England.
Rarely still does a victor of such a prestigious international competition head to this level to further their playing career.
But that is exactly what Reading’s young goalkeeper Luke Southwood is doing at National League side Eastleigh, since joining on loan in December.
Few would go towards anyone other than a member of the squad of 66 when asked to name an English World Cup winner, but such a title can be donned to Southwood after being part of the victorious Under 20s squad who travelled to South Korea.
The 21-year-old has switched the trials and tribulations of the Royals Reserves for the play-off push at the Silverlake Stadium, a move he isn’t regretting so far as he picks up the club’s player of the month award for March.
“I’m loving it,” said Southwood, a broad smile stretching across his face as the confidence gained from finally playing regular, competitive first team football seems to be having an effect.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the lads, I think it was easy for me to come in straight away and the people here made me feel really welcome.”
As Christmas Eve loomed, it was another goalkeeper Eastleigh were wishing for, rather than snow or their two front teeth.
Polish born 22-year-old Max Stryjek had exceeded expectations during his spell at the Spitfires whilst on loan from Sunderland, but his return to the North East meant the Hampshire club were looking for a replacement.
An offer from a Championship club with a World Cup winner seemed too good to be true for Ben Strevens and his staff.
For the young goalkeeper, now plying his trade against the likes of Maidstone rather than Mexico, the summer of 2017 is described as “life-changing.”
“It was an amazing experience from the start. It actually started a year before that at the Euros where we had to qualify, there were loads of games and tournaments. It was just an incredible experience from start to finish.”
Although being amongst the elite squad, Southwood was unable to break into the eleven at the tournament; such is the life of a goalkeeper in a competitive side.
However, being the level minded youngster he is, the lessons and experiences gained from that summer became almost as valuable as the minutes.
“We travelled to loads of different countries and I played quite a few games in the build-up,” Southwood was keen to point out; the pride of being able to say he had an impact still evident as he described these early matches.
“Being able to be a part of the team that won it is something that I will never forget. They [the British public] would send pictures and videos. We actually got back to the airport and there were loads of people waiting, lots of media too. That made it obvious about how much it meant to people back home.
“It was actually surprising how much it really meant to people. Out there we are in a different time zone, going game-to-game, and it’s hard to keep track. But it was really good to see how much it affected people.”
A Royal meeting a Royal is normally an occasion that lives long in the memory.
And it was nothing different for Southwood when he returned with the England squad following their 1-0 final win over Venezuela.
Amongst the messages of support whilst in South Korea was some from the Royal Family, and the youngsters were invited to meet their regal supporters upon their arrival back to the UK.
An experience unlike any other, especially for someone who was not even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes when the nation last celebrated an international trophy.
“Prince William also sent in his message. That was unbelievable. Just a really good experience and it was really nice to chat to them. It was interesting to see how much they really knew about it and that was really good to see.”
This may have been the moment where the enormity of the Under 20s’ achievement truly sank in for the squad.
To achieve any kind of recognition for your work at such a young age speaks volumes, but to hear it from a figure such as Prince William, President of the Football Association, adds a certain choice cherry to the already impressive cake.
But the Oxford-born ‘keeper does not let this affect his modesty.
In response to the question about whether this achievement is used as a humble brag amongst team mates at the training ground he responded with a laugh: “No no, I actually get quite a lot of banter from the lads about it, especially at Reading. So I just try and keep it quiet!”
Some would think that with an achievement like that on your CV, the infamous World Cup campaign of 2018 played out by his senior international colleagues would be watched a little differently by someone like Southwood.
“Oh no I was like everyone else,” he admits with a grin. “I was always with the lads watching the games. That was the best summer. I was back to being a fan straight away.”
However, Eastleigh’s latest number one at least concedes that despite his modesty, the experience of the summer of 2017 does give him a little extra compared to other goalkeepers of his age.
“I think it definitely gives me something different. Playing those games before the World Cup was such a good experience for me, and being part of a winning team like that at such a big tournament is something that is always going to help me in my career.
“Maybe in the future at tournaments and other cup competitions it will give me something that other goalkeepers might not have.”
When it comes to his future in the national team there is still plenty of work for Southwood to do, despite his impressive international history.
“I’ve got to try and work my way back now to the Under 21s team. There’s a lot more competition now because the team is spread across three age groups, so I am not just battling against people from 97 [born in 1997].
“I’ve got to keep concentrating on what I’m doing now, here at Eastleigh right now. Playing games, playing well. Hopefully getting into the play-offs and push for promotion. Then the National side of things will take care of itself. I’ve got to keep working hard.”
The Spitfires fans will be pleased to hear of the clear desire from their new recruit to do well at this level and for his new club.
When asked about where he sees himself in a year’s time, the answer from the new man between the sticks at the Silverlake showcased already a professional approach to his career, looking no further than the push for promotion in Hampshire.
“I’m just concentrating right now with Eastleigh,” Southwood said. “I want to really kick on here, really do well and like I said push for those promotion spots.
“As a young goalie I’ve got to be realistic with the fact that I am not going to be thrown straight in at that Championship level. I’m realistic to the fact that I might be on loan again next season. But with that I’ll hopefully work my way up the leagues.”
Alongside success at a National level, there is a clear goal and ambition for Southwood to reach the top of the pecking order at a certain side, his footballing home since the age of seven.
“I’ll make sure when I am given the chance in Reading’s first team that I will take the chance and push on from there. That’s definitely the aim [being number one at Reading], ever since I have been there.
“I’ll keep working hard to make sure that happens.”
But of course, whilst working for these long term aims there are many stepping stones to meet and surpass first.
With one of these being at Eastleigh for Southwood, there is no questioning his desire to succeed here. But notably not just for his own personal gain, but that of the team and the club as a whole too.
“It’s a great feeling [here]. It’s obvious here with the lads that there is a real buzz about the place and I think the manager Strevs [Ben Strevens] really helps with that, he really gets the boys going.
“There’s a really good feeling here right now and hopefully we’ll continue to keep winning games and keep doing the right things.”
As if to illustrate his goalkeeper’s point, Eastleigh’s goal machine this season Paul McCallum walks into shot at this point of the interview. Just in frame over Southwood’s shoulder, he performs some kind of dance move to the camera which brought about few laughs.
It really does feel like a family here at the Silverlake, with the fact that Eastleigh boast a smaller squad than most in the division possibly providing a reason for this.
Southwood has fitted straight into this tight knit group, something which has made the inconvenient switch of goalkeepers midway through the campaign even easier for the club.
“I get on with all the lads,” agrees Southwood. “I think when I first came in I spoke to Greener [Michael Green] a lot, obviously a club legend having been here years.
“But with all the lads I haven’t got a bad word to say about them. They’re really professional day-in-day-out.”
It’s clear to see that this attitude from the Reading loanee has not gone unnoticed by the Spitfires faithful, who regularly voice their support for their new goalkeeper on Twitter.
“I love that,” a huge smile stretching across his face as he answers, harking back to the point earlier that any type of support or recognition from anyone is well received at this age.
“I think it’s important to show the fans that I want to be here and I want to win for the club. It means a lot to me. I’m not just here to get games and not be bothered about winning or losing. I am.
“I really want to win and push on here and do well for the club.”
Whilst talking to Southwood you see that the professional attitude missed by some many promising youngsters is alive and kicking within him, forecasting a positive pathway ahead for the England international.
Whilst youngsters Jordan Sancho and Reiss Nelson are enjoying a German flavour of football in order to further their footballing ambitions, Eastleigh’s number one has his feet firmly planted, for now, in England.
What the future holds is in his own hands, but with these hands just being awarded Eastleigh’s player of the month for March, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.